Just a passing phase (19)


October 22, 2006

They beat up one of our photographers today.

And smashed his cameras. Now that's pretty tough – not so much slapping around our photographer and threatening to drag him into a car so that he could join the ranks of nameless corpses, that's common. But destroying these big clunky professional Canons, with metal frames takes a lot of effort.

Apparently, though, grabbing a camera by its lens and hurling it with all force onto a stone floor, will do the trick.

He was taking pictures of worshippers, something this Shiite photographer does every Friday, but this was a Sunni mosque and this time he didn't come with the Sunni journalist and he was taking pictures of people's faces.

Maybe he was going to deliver those pictures to a Shiite death squad, went the thinking.

So the guards grabbed him, hurt him, checked his wallet, and found a few too many pictures of soulful eyed Shiite imams – not too mention the fact that he does have his connections with the Shiite militias, but then you have to if you're going take pictures out in Sadr City.

They hit him a lot, and were prepared to take him away, when the mosque imam said that actually he had been there just a week before taking pictures with a nice Sunni fellow who was okay in those circles.

If not for that...

So they took is id, no doubt to circulate it around to the wrong people and let him go. Not surprisingly he was a bit put out when he came back to the office. The last time I saw him this furious was when he was going to the hospital to take picture of bomb victims and a photographer from a rival agency had paid off the Shiite militia hospital guards not too let any other photographers in to take pictures and he got shot at.

Photography in Baghdad is a competitive business.

Which isn't too say we don't all help each other out. A while back, Reuters wire service reported (correctly) that the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia, was involved with death squad activity. Apparently that article got translated in Arabic, or someone from Badr was monitoring the English wire because word soon went out that if any of their photographers were seen on the street they would be shot.

So for about a month, our agency shared photos with them. Friend in need and all that.

You see, the thing is, you can cover a war from inside a building, on a desk with a telephone. Not well, but it can be done. You can't take pictures of it that way. You have to go out there.

The photographers are the unsung heroes, the lions of the bureau. They are the ones who actually go out and roam the streets and actually see what's happening. Most of the rest of us huddle in our tower and watch it all fall apart from a distance.

When the former photo editor, a portly mustachioed Lebanese fellow, finally left after working Baghdad for most of the past few years, the photographers he'd trained up gave him a little ceremony and plaque. It was quite sweet.

Especially because the guy who organized it clearly was taking his cues from a Baath party farewell ceremony.

In his speech, in Arabic, the photo editor told them, "you are the real AFP, don't forget it. You are the soul of this bureau." Interestingly enough, his remarks in English didn't quite go that way.

We sent some of our Sunnis out to get the photographer's id back. The mosque guards sort of apologized – you can't be too careful – and after all, he was taking pictures of people's faces and maybe he shouldn't come back to this mosque ever again, hmmm?

But every day, they will still go out and take pictures.

A few weeks earlier, I walked out of a hotel, walked down a darkened street, and walked into a restaurant full of strange people and ordered food. The place was crowded, and a few minute later, two guys I didn't know sat down at my table.

It's an innocent and ordinary enough thing to do in most places of the world and, as it turned out, I was in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, and it was pretty safe, but after almost a year of living the unreal life in Baghdad, even something that simple was incredibly difficult.

It's hard to believe the three northern provinces are part of Iraq – something not lost on the inhabitants – because the streets are full of people just, like, walking, shopping, wandering around... after dark. In the capital Arbil people sit in parks, sip cokes, and watch live music in grassy parks decorated with cheesy, faux Greek columns.

In mountains Dohuk, I found a street with five liquor stores selling beer from Turkey during Ramadan.

I traveled around without a flak jacket or helmet, catching a ride in people's cars without a bodyguard, interviewing people for a stories as though I was just an ordinary journalist.

I didn't at first talk with my impromptu dinner companions. I assumed they were Kurdish, and I'd learned pretty early on that many Kurds don't always feel the need to learn Arabic.

So we ate our meals in silence. The salads, the meat, the tea, the toothpicks. Finally faced with the implacable politeness of the Middle East, one of them had to offer me a cigarette before he smoked one himself.

"Want smoke," he grunted.

"No smoke," I grunted back.

"No, I do not smoke," corrected the other one. There was a pause.

It turned out my two silent dinner companions not only spoke perfect English, but were Iraqi Arabs.

"I thought you were a Turk," confessed one them, explaining his reticence to talk. "I thought a northern Turk from the way you ate." What's wrong with how I eat?

They were refugees, in a way. Educated, cultured multilingual Iraqis who had fled Baghdad when life at home became a pale mockery. Constantly dogged by fear for their families, always home by sunset, living an increasingly closed in life.

They came to Kurdistan so they could hear people play music at night, said one, with a sudden catch in his voice. He described the first time he took his family on a drive around Arbil, after dark. Just driving after sunset was a novelty.

The other one talked about how back in 2001 he took his family up to visit Dohuk, to see the mountains, and then, as night fell, decided it was time to go home and drove the six hours back to Baghdad through the night.

We all chuckled – the thought of driving through central Iraq in the middle of the night was just farcical now.

Kurdistan certainly has its issues. There are two political parties with an intense rivalry, there is corruption in the government, people aren't happy with their social services and there's unemployment – but it's safe.

The Kurds are generally a fiercely proud lot, but they are especially fiercely proud that their areas aren't the awful disintegrating mess of the rest of the country, it wasn't always this way.

I spent a fair amount of time with our photographer stringer up there, a Kurd, who back in the 1980s had Egyptian school teachers so we could communicate. He told me about the dark days of the 90s. For most of that decade, rival militias battled it out in the streets of the capital and by nightfall everyone huddled inside and hoped the shooting would end.

"We had our militia phase, maybe the rest of the Iraq will get over its own."

It's a nice thought, that maybe it's just a matter of time before Iraq works its way through this "phase" – sort of like braces or heavy metal music or something.

The word is that tomorrow will be Eid, ending a particularly nasty month of Ramadan here. Except that it won't be Eid for everyone, Sunni Eid is earlier and the Shiites will do it a few days later.

Today some guy blew himself up on city bus carrying shoppers away from one of the big city markets. People were laden down with bags of children's toys and clothes to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Four dead, 15 wounded, mostly women and children.

I know this happened because the photographer came back and showed me his pictures of children's clothes and toys scattered all over the highway.

It's a bit of a nasty phase.